/ 5 September 2008

The end of the car guard?

Journalists are trained cynics. If you tell us, in all honesty, that you found a cheese and onion crisp that resembled Jesus’s face, not only would we be biting our lips not to laugh out loud, but we might just suggest that you consider a check-up with a friendly shrink.

However, we wouldn’t for one second consider the possibility that what you’re saying might be true, not because we know better, but because we’re trained not to believe most of what we’re told and to double-check anything suspicious.

So when Mercedes-Benz told us that it was debuting a new parking programme on the updated A-Class and B-Class ranges that would enable a car to parallel park itself, we sniggered disbelievingly. Even when one of the communications executives demonstrated the new system and we watched the car park while he waved his hands out the window, we still weren’t convinced.

Of course, there was nothing left to do except to try it out for ourselves.

Normally, the parking assist programme, which includes front and rear sensors, costs R3 500 and for an additional R500 you get the Active Parking Assist programme, which will enable the car to park itself. But it must be stressed that this is an assistance programme, so driver input is still necessary in the way of accelerating and braking when need be.

You have to have your indicator on (something most South African drivers might find difficult to do), and be driving in a forward direction under 30kph for the sensors to start looking for a space. Once the car finds a suitable space, it will ask you on the trip computer screen if you would like to engage the programme to park the car. Once this is done, things get a little weird for control freaks such as myself.

Take your foot off the brake pedal ever so slightly and be sure to take your hands off the steering
wheel as it swings violently to manoeuvre the vehicle. Accelerating gently while sitting on my hands, I watched the steering wheel adjust itself so that the car slotted into the space in as few moves as necessary. The warning alert grew louder and the small row of interior lights situated at the back of the roof told me I was getting too close to the car behind me, so I engaged drive, the steering swung again and the car straightened itself out perfectly.

For now, this driving aid is only available on the refreshed A-Class and B-Class ranges, but as models are updated, active parking assist will become an option across the Mercedes-Benz range of passenger vehicles.

Although the engines on the A-Class remain unchanged, the B-Class engines have been tweaked for better fuel efficiency, but the power and torque outputs remain the same. Both facelifted models feature new grilles and headlamps as well as new upholstery, a Bluetooth interface and hillstart assist, which ensures the car won’t roll backwards when you’re moving your foot off the brake to the accelerator.

Adaptive brake lights, which flash on a different frequency under harsh braking conditions, are now an optional extra on both ranges.

The A-Class ranges in price from R212 000 (for the A170) to R242 000 (for the A180 CDi) and the B-Class goes for between R253 000 (for the B170) andR308 000 (for the B200 CDi).